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Sand Fire air support grounded for man flying drone to 'check out the fire'

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According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, law-enforcement officers stopped a man Sunday morning for using a drone at the scene of an out-of-control wildfire in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The 3,800-acre Sand Fire, burning in heavily wooded areas north of Plymouth, has so far consumed at least 13 homes and 38 outbuildings, and 515 homes were under evacuation orders. Though only 30 percent contained on Sunday, officials report it 75 percent contained on Monday night.

The drone pilot was reportedly flying at about 9 a.m. in an area near where CalFire firefighters were setting up a fire break and within sight of aircraft. CalFire grounded its air-assault a short time until the all-clear was issued.

This would be the first reported case of CalFire halting air operations for civilian drone at a fire, said CalFire spokesperson Lynne Tolmachoff.

“These unmanned aircraft are becoming very popular with people, and there’s a possibility we will see more of them,” she said.

Tolmachoff said the man told El Dorado County Sheriff deputies that he was photographing with the drone for "personal entertainment" so he could "check out the fire." He was advised to stop flying and was not cited.

Since the Sand Fire began, several videos from drones and radio-controlled aircraft have been posted to YouTube and social media by pilots flying many miles away and in the evening, after air operations had ended. All earned numerous comments of outrage from irate viewers. Others, however, have lauded the efforts, noting that the videos are helpful for the public to know the current location of the fire and what structures may have been burned.

More than 1,900 firefighters have been battling the blaze since it began Saturday when a vehicle drove over brush that was tinder-dry from the state's drought.

While this may be the first such encounter for CalFire, other agencies have expressed concerns about the public use of drones during fire situations. Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside) said there were reports of people near a San Diego County brush fire last May and cautioned that they may interfere with "our heroes doing their work."

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